Mind Games: How Killers Think

In the wake of several calculated murders, psychologists decode the brain of a criminal

Published: 29th September 2015 04:18 AM  |   Last Updated: 29th September 2015 04:18 AM   |  A+A-

QUEEN'S ROAD: The elaborate scheming that went into two murders — of Sheena Bora and Anuradha Macheri — that have hogged the headlines recently raises an intriguing question: how does a killer’s mind work?

While media baron Indrani Mukerjea allegedly smothered her daughter to death, Gokul Macheri, a middle-class techie from Bengaluru, is charged with killing his wife in the hope of reuniting with an ex-girlfriend. He even attempted to frame the woman’s husband as a terrorist by making a hoax bomb call to the airport. City Express spoke to psychologists about the triggers behind criminal behaviour.

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Childhood matters

According to psychotherapist and family counsellor Meera Haran Alva, childhood trauma often fractures a person’s mental faculties enough to make it difficult for him or her to understand right from wrong. “Not much is known about Macheri’s childhood but there could be some triggers leading back to his early years. They may have suppressed his emotions. When one has been abused or mistreated, the perception of the world changes,” she said.

Indrani has admitted to the police that she was sexually assaulted by her step-father. Many infamous criminals have suffered childhood abuse. For instance, Charles Sobhraj, the serial killer who preyed on tourists in India, grew up poor on the streets of Vietnam. He was rejected by his mother’s second husband. “The environment one is brought up in creates a predisposition to certain activities,” Meera said.

She said the many forms of domestic violence and abuse that occur within the confines of a house are often not discussed openly. Referring to the Macheri case, she said, “Love can also bring passionate and intoxicating hate. Perhaps the violence already existed in that relationship. It may have ultimately manifested itself in the form of murder.” 

But the answer doesn’t lie in psychology alone, she added. “Much like the question of the chicken or the egg coming first, there is no simple answer to the complex question of brain wiring. Traumatic events could trigger certain chemical reactions in the brain, that is all we can say.”

Something snaps

Psychopathy refers to a personality disorder with a serious absence of remorse combined with anti-social feelings. Psychologists often cite it as a disorder many killers have. “In their heads, they are able to rationalise criminal actions. They believe certain people needed to die and feel no remorse for them. Sometimes, they lose patience while waiting for nature or law to take its course. Something snaps. They build up the wait into something more than what it is and take ‘justice’ into their own hands,” Meera said.

Split personality, now known as dissociative personality disorder, causes memory loss and an inability to recall any  changes in personality. However, in the Indrani and Macheri cases, both went back to their day-to-day lives. They were able to intelligently continue the facade that nothing had changed.

Kala Balasubramaniam, a psychologist, said, “By birth, the brain wiring could be different in some people. Scientists have been trying to find proof of this for years. Researchers have studied the brain to find patterns in neuro circuits of criminals, but nothing concrete has been established.”

According to her, the Sheena Bora and Anuradha Macheri cases were not just acts of passion. They were murders that were carefully premeditated. “Either you have a conscience that stops you from doing something wrong or there is a fear of punishment that holds you back. When both are absent, the problem arises. Some kind of lack of reasoning could be ingrained in their psychopathology. That also prevents them from feeling remorse.”

Turn of events

Rajesh Goyal, a Delhi-based psychiatrist, sees Macheri and Indrani as victims of circumstance, not people with mental disorders. “In order to save themselves or maybe on being unable to find a way out of their situation, they may have committed the crime. Neither has a past record to speak of, and they are not responsible for the entire chain of events. Both were part of it.”

On an unrelated note, he also dismissed a popular belief about serial killers — that they exhibit anti-social behaviour, hurt animals and may have been neglected as  children. According to him, this is a rather simplistic way of looking at things and the acts could be spurred on by recent events.

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